Initiatory Rites of Passage as Leverage Points: A Comparative Investigation of Symbolic Meaning in the Japanese School System

Ian Roth


This paper will concern itself with rites of passage, in particular focusing on those embedded in various schooling and educational systems and used to signify initiation.  It will investigate how, as educational elements, such rites exist, are practiced, and remain significant in an increasingly anthropocentric world.  The paper will begin by discussing a particular case: that of Japan’s entrance examination system.  It will show how this system once served as an initiatory rite of passage, playing an important role in the mental and emotional health of individuals as well as in the functioning of the society at large.  The paper with then move into an investigation of contemporary Japan exploring how, over the last two decades, entrance examinations have fallen ever further into disuse.  This trend will then be shown to correlate with the development of overly dependent, asocial, and/or self-destructive behavioral trends among young Japanese.  The possible connections between Japan’s disappearing rite of passage and its growing troubles with its younger generations will be explored and interpretations based on a framework rooted in anthropology and existential Psychology will be offered.   In order to develop a richer and more complex understanding of the trends in question, the paper will then compare Japan to both Korea and the United States applying the same framework to further explore how initiatory rites of passage can act as leverage points in the production of social trends. It will conclude by inquiring as to whether an active approach to the design and implementation of initiatory rites of passage would be an ethical and advisable strategy for reforming education. 


schooling; educational design; ritual; Japan

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